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An ABC: Some Tidbits

The title of this poem in the sixteen surviving manuscripts is "La priere de Nostre Dame" (The prayer of our Lady). Critics more frequently refer to it as Chaucer's ABC. The poem appears to be Chaucer's close translation of a prayer that first appeared in the French allegorical poem called La Pelerinaige de la vie humaine ("The Pilgrimage of Human Life") from about 1330. Chaucer's ABC survives in the following manuscripts:

  • Bodley 638 Bodleian Library
  • Coventry MS (Accession 325), City Record Office, Coventry
  • Fairfax 16, Bodleian Library
  • Gg. 4. 27, Cambridge University Library
  • Harley 2251, British Library
  • Harley 7578, British Library
  • Pepys 2006, Magdalene College, Cambridge, in two copies with only the first sixty lines
  • Additional MS 36983, British Library (formerly part of the Bedford Collection)
  • Ff.5.30, Cambridge University Library
  • Hunter 239, Glasgow University Library
  • G.21, St. John's College, Cambridge
  • Laud Misc 740, Bodleian Library
  • Melbourne MS, State Library of Victoria (Felton Bequest)
  • Arc. L. 40.2/E.44, Sion College, London

It also survives in Speght's 1602 edition of Chaucer's works (STC 5080-81), and the first sixteen lines of the text also survive in Cosin MS. V.I.9 of Durham University Library.

According to the printed Speght edition, Chaucer's poem was composed "at the request of Blanche, Duchesse of Lancaster, as a praier for her privat use." If this statement is true, as critic John Fisher notes, the ABC must be one of Chaucer's earliest poems, one written even before the The Book of the Duchess.

The form of the poem is an acrostic, specifically the subgenre known as an abecedarian poem. Each stanza begins with a letter of the medieval Latin alphabet, each appearing in sequence, progressing from A to the letter Z. Each stanza evokes a different symbol over the progression of the poem, but Chaucer omits much of the imagery dealing most explicitly with Christ and the virgin. In effect, Chaucer blurs the line between a sensual courtly love poem praising the qualities of an attractive woman and a devout Marian poem praising the holy qualities of the Virgin Mary. The mixture of Marian and courtly language was a feature in many medieval poems. In this case, the complaintes d'amour were Chaucer's principle models--especially Machaut, Deschamps, and Froissart.

Biblical antecedents for such a model of poetry appear in Psalm 118 in the Douay-Rheims numbering of the Bible. This psalm is itself an abecedarian acrostic, with each stanza headed by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, such as Alph, Beth, Gimel, and so on. Chaucer would not have known the original Hebrew, of course, but he almost certainly was familiar with some Vulgate translations in medieval Latin.

Note especially the legal terminology: "greevous accioun" in line 20, "verrey right" in line 21, "general acquitaunce" in line 60, and so on. Even the last judgment becomes "the grete assyse" in line 36, and God the "hye justyse" (638) who redeems the accused by using his blood as lawyer's ink when he "wrot the bille / Upon the crois" (638). These lines and others are possibly reminiscent of the legal training Chaucer might have received at the Inns of Court or Oxford during his law school days. (On the other hand, theological texts dealing with soteriology or salvation often make use of similarly legalistic diction as well).

Click here to read the text of the poem.

 

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2017. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated January 5, 2017. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.